Quarterback Devin Leary's comeback starts now at Kentucky

David Jensen/Icon Sportswire

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Devin Leary is always ready to answer the question. He thinks about it a lot.

He mentioned it when he first met Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops and he brought it up with offensive coordinator Liam Coen during spring exit interviews. It's the whole reason he's here, really. Leary would be cashing NFL checks already if it weren't for that big, looming question about his health.

Leary is injury-prone. Like it or not, the narrative persists. Oh, he can argue against the label and make a compelling case, but the details are often ignored in favor of the big, glaring headline.

"Man, I just took two bad hits," Leary said, beginning a speech he has repeated again and again since his 2022 campaign ended suddenly after a wonky throw against Florida State.

Leary was a burgeoning star quarterback for NC State in 2021, throwing 35 touchdowns and just five interceptions, but that season was bookended by a broken leg after a seemingly routine slide five games into the 2020 season and a torn pectoral muscle after his right arm hit a defender following a throw six games into 2022.

No pulled hamstrings. No ACL tears. No sprained ankles or sore elbows. Leary hasn't dealt with any routine injuries that typically befall a QB. Indeed, after renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews assessed Leary's MRI last fall, he lamented it was the first time he'd ever seen a QB with that type of pec injury.

Injury-prone? Heck no, Leary insists. Strange things happen, and he was just unlucky enough to have them happen to him twice.

The more Leary dodges the label, however, the more it feels like it defines him as he prepares for his sixth season of college football and his first at Kentucky. He entered the transfer portal in December as one of the most sought-after players in the country. He has legitimate NFL aspirations when this year is done. But for now, what's on his mind is simply proving he can get back on the field, escape the wrath of the injury gods for another year, and fight that narrative with his arm instead of his words.

"I pride myself on being tough and taking hits and standing in there," Leary said. "But that's just a part of my journey, and I've learned to embrace it."

Leary's journey was never supposed to include a pit stop in Lexington. After his stellar 2021 campaign ended with a canceled bowl game, he considered leaving school for the NFL, but instead opted to polish his résumé for one final season at NC State. Last summer, he worked out at the Manning Passing Academy with soon-to-be draft stars Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson and Will Levis, and he held his own. By the time the 2022 season began, NC State was ranked in the preseason top 10, and Leary was named the ACC's preseason player of the year.

And then it all fell apart.

In the days after the injury, NC State coach Dave Doeren said he was hopeful Leary could return later in the 2022 season, but Leary said he instantly knew his year was over. His final numbers for the season that was supposed to propel him into the NFL: 11 touchdowns, four picks and less than 1,300 yards of offense.

Leary flew with his mother to Alabama for a consultation with Andrews, still hopeful he could recover in time for the NFL combine. The news wasn't good.

Andrews offered two options. Leary could attempt to rehab the injury, and if all went perfectly, he could possibly throw during the combine or a pro day. But if the rehab didn't remedy the problem, he'd need surgery, and he'd set his return date back even further. If he opted for immediate surgery, he faced an extended recovery that would see him plummet on draft boards. Oh, and just to add another wrinkle, it would be the first time Andrews would ever perform the required procedure on a quarterback.

"It turned my whole world around in one conversation," Leary said.

Leary and his mother retreated to a waiting room and called his dad. The three talked it over and opted for surgery. Once that decision was made, it opened the floodgates for even more world-altering choices.

"I had to reevaluate everything that I was planning for the following year," Leary said, "... and that included where I was going to play."

Leary said he kept Doeren informed each step of the way, but after five years in Raleigh, he ultimately decided it was time for a change of scenery and entered his name into the transfer portal.

The first call Leary got came from Kentucky receivers coach Scott Woodward. Back in high school, Leary had attended a camp at Wagner University at the behest of a coach from Florida, but it was Woodward, then an assistant at UMass, who made a real impression on the young QB. Six years later, that relationship paid dividends for both.

Leary was widely considered among the best players available during the winter portal window, and he had interest from dozens of schools. Leary eventually narrowed his options to five and took just two official visits -- to Kentucky and Auburn.

He knew before he left campus in Lexington, however, that he wanted to play for the Wildcats.

Woodward was the one who opened the door, but Leary found support in Kentucky's most recent QB, Levis. The two actually met while at the airport waiting for a flight to the Manning Passing Academy in 2022. At the time, they talked about possibly sharing a stage at the 2023 NFL draft. When they met again at UK, just two months before Levis would head to the NFL combine, the conversation was much different.

"I'm sitting with Will, and he's talking about why I should come to Kentucky," Leary said. "It's crazy how the world spins around sometimes."

It was Kentucky's new offensive coordinator who sealed the deal for Levis, however. Coen helped Levis blossom into a star as a transfer QB in 2021, but Coen soon departed to work as the OC for the Los Angeles Rams. At the end of 2022, Coen opted to return to his college roots, coming back to Kentucky to groom another transfer. Still, it was that one-year hiatus in L.A. that convinced Leary he'd found a home with the Wildcats.

"He pulled up three or four plays they ran here in 2021," Leary recalled, "then they pulled up three or four plays from the Rams, and Matthew Stafford is running the exact same concepts."

Leary's NFL dreams have been delayed a year, but in Coen, he saw a coach who could make him a better QB when those dreams finally become reality.

Coen did his homework on Leary, too. Years ago, Coen had worked with a QB at Maine named Danny Collins. Coen loved the guy. He was tough, singularly focused, lived in the film room. He had a big arm but thrived by reading a defense. He played with a chip on his shoulder, Coen said, was beloved by his teammates and played with a little New Jersey swagger. Leary checked all those same boxes, right down to his home state.

"You see the ball jump off his hand on the film," said Coen, who even watched Leary's NC State teammates' press conferences to see how they spoke about their QB, "but you see a player who everyone gets better when he plays."

The key there, however, is the last part: "When he plays."

Leary's missed 15 games over the past three seasons, and when he arrived at Kentucky in January, it was with no guarantees he'd be throwing without pain.

Andrews helped provide a protocol for Leary's return, slowly ramping up his workload until he'd regained his lost arm strength. Leary tested his arm for the first time in early March, just before Kentucky began spring ball. The goal was 60 throws vs. air.

"The first 10 throws," Leary said, "my arm feels shot."

Slowly, things improved. Doctor's orders limited how many throws he could make each day, and by Kentucky's first scrimmage of the spring, Leary looked like his old self.

"You can see the toughness, and he has the ability," Stoops said. "We were trying to limit his throws a little bit, but there were certain throws that jumped out at us."

His new teammates had taken notice, too. At NC State, Leary was the unquestioned leader after five years of hard work and big wins. At Kentucky, he took a more measured approach, hoping to earn respect with his game rather than rock the boat in a new locker room.

It was that first scrimmage when it all came together. The offense was down and needed a big play. Leary read the defense, took the snap and zipped a laser over the middle between two defenders for a huge gain. The entire tone of the practice changed. With one throw, it was clear: Leary's arm was back, and his role was established.

"All the guys were juiced up," said right guard Eli Cox. "And that's when you know."

There are still some unknowns for Leary. Coen wants him to work more under center this season -- something he rarely did at NC State. Coen has been impressed by Leary's field awareness -- a gift, he said, that reminds him of Stafford -- but he also thinks Leary sometimes lets the big picture get in the way of his precision. Leary has earned the respect of his teammates, but this summer, during seven-on-seven drills, is when he'll need to become a more vocal leader of the offense.

And yes, there is still the question of his health, because after two serious injuries in three years, the narrative won't die until Leary puts it to rest on the field.